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Eyes on the Prize

The Medford Mustangs have already gone through the typical routines involved whenever traveling to a baseball tournament.

From getting room assignments to having ground rules set down by tournament directors and team photos taken, one thing has become increasingly apparent about the Northwest Regional champions leading up to the American Legion AAA World Series in Fargo, N.D.

"When we got done taking the team picture, the photographer came up and said how different we were than everyone else," Mustangs manager Sandee Kensinger offered up during a break Thursday. "She said all the other teams had come in there and were all real serious and here we were all smiling and joking around. I said, 'That's just us. We like to have a good time wherever we are.'"

Kensinger hopes that relaxed team chemistry equates to more good times when the Mustangs finally take the field at 3 p.m. today against Great Lakes Regional champion Berryhill Post 165 of Midland, Mich.

The double-elimination World Series runs today through Tuesday at Newman Outdoor Field on the campus of North Dakota State University.

Mustang games will be broadcast live on the radio at KCMX 880-AM and at www.tablerocksportsnetwork.com. The American Legion Web site (www.baseball.legion.org) provides a webcast for all games in the eight-team national tourney.

"I've been there before, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for these kids so I want them to enjoy it," said Kensinger. "You should have fun at something like this. But I also told them, 'Enjoy all this fun stuff, but be ready to play (today).'"

That philosophy hasn't had any trouble trickling down to the Mustang players, who secured their fourth trip to the World Series in program history with Monday's 14-0 triumph over Lakeside Recovery of Bellevue, Wash., in the Northwest Regional championship.

The team left Medford on Wednesday morning, endured a four-hour layover at the airport in Denver and finally arrived in Fargo around 4:30 p.m. local time, 2:30 p.m. here. The group of teenage boys filled most of their time Wednesday looking for cheap places to eat, sleeping and playing video games.

Thursday's highlight, leading up to the team banquet later that night, included a 45-minute practice at Newman Outdoor Field. The facility seats around 4,500 and is home to the North Dakota State baseball team and the minor league Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks of the independent league.

"You wouldn't believe this ballpark, it's unbelievable with all the seating and skyboxes and everything," said Kensinger.

Third baseman Griffin Boyd said the ballpark compared favorably to any minor league park or really nice college facility he's ever seen.

"We looked it up online before we got here," said Boyd, "but seeing it in person, it's really even more impressive."

The field dimensions, mostly in the corners, are a little smaller than what the Mustangs are used to at Harry & David Field. The left-field fence stands at 318 feet, with center field 408 and right field 314.

Although the team only got a slight taste of what play might be like at Newman, it was enough to draw a few important conclusions.

"I don't know what the elevation is here but the ball really flies," said Kensinger. "We lost more than a half dozen balls over the fence today."

"I like it," added the 20th-year Mustangs coach. "Our pitchers might not like it, but it's a hitter's park and our hitters can really hit."

As one of those top hitters, however, Boyd said he's not so sure the elements will play as much of a factor as Kensinger thinks.

"It's weird there," said Boyd, who's hitting .354 with five home runs and 40 RBIs. "The wind will change every five minutes in direction. There will be some (batting practice) rounds where you can get the ball out and there are other rounds when the ball won't go anywhere. When I jumped in the wind was howling in."

The team's trip to the field also allowed the Mustangs to size up at least some of their competition as each time went back-to-back in the practice sessions.

"There's some big boys here," said Kensinger. "I don't know what they feed them on the East Coast or down south, but there's some big boys."

Added Boyd, "I think we're just really excited to get out there (today) and see what these teams have to offer. They all look like good teams from what we've seen, but we won't really know until they get on the field and play ball."

If the Mustangs (45-10) have anything on their side, it's that the boys are brimming with confidence after a stellar undefeated run through their regional tournament. Medford batted .300 as a team and its pitching staff posted an earned-run average of 0.21.

The Mustangs never trailed in the regional.

"We're coming in with a lot of confidence and trying to win this thing," said Boyd. "It's nice getting here, but we definitely want to finish the job and want to take (the trophy) home."

The defending champion Southern Nevada Titans (62-12) enter as the tourney favorites, and would become only the second team in more than 30 years to win back-to-back World Series titles.

The Las Vegas squad, however, was dealt a setback Thursday when it was announced first baseman/pitcher Jeff Malm agreed in principle to a contract with the Tampa Bay Rays, who selected him 169th overall in the fifth round, and will not play in the Legion tourney.

Reach reporter Kris Henryat 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com

Medford Mustangs manager Sandee Kensinger (17) celebrates with his players after winning the Northwest Regional. - MT file photo